Isaac Bashevis Singer: Between Fact and Fiction

The life and work of Yiddish literature's Nobel laureate.

Print this page Print this page

Gimpel the Fool

Indeed, one of his most anthologized stories, "Gimpel the Fool," was written this way and later sold to a collection of children's fiction for something like $25 (accounts about the precise amount differ).

What matters in terms of Singer's American reputation is not how many Yiddische kinder heard the story at bedtime but the fact that critic Irving Howe so admired Singer's odd tale of innocence and art, corruption and imagination, that he sent it to Saul Bellow so he could translate it into English.

After Bellow translated the story, it went back to Howe who submitted it to the editors of Partisan Review. Singer's story of a boy easily deceived by his classmates, and of a man later cuckolded by his wife, redefined the dimensions of the schlemiel. Gimpel, the holy fool, becomes a wise man and, more important, a storyteller: "Going from place to place, eating at strange tables, it often happens that I spin yarns--improbable things that could never have happened--about devils, magicians, windmills, and the like."

In describing himself, Gimpel also describes his creator.

The story was published in a 1953 issue, and the rest, as they say, is history. During the mid-1950s Partisan Review was the most influential magazine of its kind; self-respecting intellectuals read it from cover to cover. Being in its pages usually assured a writer a measure of fame. That was certainly the case with I.B. Singer. A decade after "Gimpel" appeared, Singer was publishing regularly in The New Yorker and, yes, Playboy.

Singer the Celebrity

As his fame increased, Singer also joined the lecture circuit, charming audiences at synagogues, Jewish community centers, and college campuses. He was especially memorable during the question-and-answer sessions that followed his readings. Singer was, in effect, the genial grandfather that most people never had: Jewish to his bones, disarming, and full of quick, funny quips.

Singer wrote hundreds of short stories, many of which were later published in collections (e.g. Short Friday [1964], Old Love [1979]), a handful of novels (e.g. The Family Moscat [1950], Enemies, a Love Story [1972]), and memoirs such as In My Father's Court (1956) and Lost in America (1981). He was a master storyteller and a writer who could fix a character with a few quick brushstrokes. Ghosts and dybbuks, imps and devils, were prominently featured in his fiction, as were the complications that survivors of the Holocaust faced when they made their way to America. Singer took in the whole landscape and made it, fictionally, his own.

A Child-Like Perspective

However, nothing cuts to the heart of his writing more than the realization that Singer remained child-like all his life. He asked questions: why do people get sick and die?; why is life so cruel?; why do good people often suffer at the hands of evil doers? Singer continued to ruminate about these basic questions long after most people had put them aside as impractical.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.